Project Description


In a word, Friends and Partners is about "community". In our electronic context, community can take many forms - whether it represents a group which cooperatively maintains a Web server; or a group of friends who gather daily in the F&P Chat Room; or one of the F&P email listservers that provides a discussion forum for a group with some common set of interests or concerns; or whether we refer to the entire family of Friends and Partners servers, listservers, bulletin boards, chat rooms which, together, are used to better educate each other about each other, Friends and Partners is about communities of people learning to talk to, learn from, and work with each other.

When we started Friends and Partners in January, 1994, we used community in the broadest sense - community between individuals and organizations located all over the world who shared some interest in US/Russian (more broadly, NIS/"west") relations. But we recognize that the community closest to each of us is that in which we live and breathe - and which is generally defined by a city, or a neighborhood, a rural area, or a relatively small geographic region and sometimes referred to as "proximal communities".


In our fascination with the global communities that the Internet makes possible to us now, we should not ignore how these same technologies might be used in our own local communities. The reasons are perhaps best summarized by the "Bellagio Declaration" - from a recent conference in Italy on communications and social change:

Bellagio Declaration

  • Every voice has the right to be heard and should have the means to be heard.
  • Communications systems and technology must therefore be affordable, accessible to all.
  • To work best, communications must allow a flow from many to many, rather than from one to many.
  • Communities must play an essential role in finding their own communications solutions.

We believe that unmediated communications processes, in which all of us may communicate freely and directly with one another will endow each of us with a greater sense of our own possibilities, enrich our cultures through direct contact with all other cultures, create a conversation without limits in which each voice may be equally heard, and from which societies of such enlightenment might arise that tolerance, self-determination, and active participation shall become common on the earth.

We believe in the power of strong, vivid, and personal images to transform consciousness. And we believe that the images and stories that define and shape a group, a community or a people are theirs alone to make.

We believe that ideas with the power to enhance our lives are arising from voices too long excluded from the larger human discourse. These are the voices of people from the edges of the world, from the margins of society. They may own neither presses nor broadcasting towers, but they may well own the future.

Moved to action by these principles, we have agreed to work together toward free and open access by all people to the tools of communications, to reach out to communities around the world for their ideas and their strength and to welcome new understanding and new knowledge from wherever it might arise.

Local community networking in Russia

The potential certainly exists for using modern information technologies for furthering open society building and democratization by increasing communications and information exchange between citizens and their governments, and providing a vehicle for more participatory community planning and local self-governance. The growing global experience with electronic local community networks suggests its relevance for communities in Russia - many of which are now beginning to take notice of and have access to the Internet.

There are many barriers to community network development in Russia. We are not naive enough to think that this development will happen easily or quickly. But we feel that it is important, at this earliest phase of community network development in Russia, that models are provided which provide a good demonstration of its potential.

Community networks are not merely web sites about communities. At a minimum, a community network must provide for development of a rich base of local information by encouraging individuals to provide/manage their own information and communications services; they must provide some level of public access to local and global communications and information resources and deal with the myriad barriers to access (including education and training); and, very importantly, they must provide a rich set of tools, opportunities, and "events" for encouraging local communications, discussion, and debate.

Discipline-focused community networks

The value of local community networking will be significantly enhanced by encouraging and facilitating participation in discipline-focused community networks. For example, local educators benefit from access to information exchange and communications with educators dealing with similar problems in other communities; NGOs from easy access to information from (and communications with) their counterparts in other communities. This same idea is easily extended to local government officials and individuals in other professional disciplines. One of the principal enhancements to basic community networking that we would like to bring to this project is to use the resources of local community networks to help construct and maintain these discipline-focused networks. The larger F&P "intranet" will be used to gather information from remote sites into the local 'nodes' which are more easily accessible to local users.

Overall plan

While there are many technical issues that must be dealt with for establishing local community networks in Russia and while we feel that our experience and ideas should help us with unique and innovative technical implementation, the real issues involved in successful community networking are not technology-based. Rather, they depend upon cultural, education, and training factors which can only be resolved in the local communities. What we would like to offer is to help foster and support a community of individuals and organizations dedicated to the idea of community networking and then use technology, our experience, and a lot of hard work to help get the process started.

At this still early but rapidly growing phase of network and information infrastructure development in Russia we feel it is important to build models which provide good demonstration of civic networking's potential. There are a few services in Russia now which use the label "community network" but which are, in fact, "web sites" about local communities. While not discounting the value of these services with regards to promoting local communities to the outside world, these are not civic networks in the 'traditional' sense of the term and do not supply the same value. By providing good models now, we intend to illustrate how civic networks are social as well as technological tools - and help build the case for a broader civic networking initiative throughout the Russian Federation.

The pages which follow outline our plans to further the Friends and Partners initiative with development of civic networks in Russia - and with plans to link these networks in such a way as to facilitate larger regional and national networking - between educators, non-governmental organizations, local and regional government officials, and individual citizens. And by linking local networks - and their constituent organizations and citizens - with similar organizations in other parts of the world, we will continue working towards our goal of fostering cooperation across national boundaries as well.

To accomplish this work, we will continue building upon the momentum of the F&P effort, draw upon the myriad resources of the F&P community (including our own excellent staffs in Russia and in the U.S.), utilize our organizational and technical experience in local and global community networking, and add some unique technical capabilities to support the development of a robust information/communications "intranet" to help link and "mirror" various services across the Internet.

Five month planning project

This is an ambitious effort. Thus, we are proposing a 5 month planning project in order to research community networking and its application in Russia, to develop basic software and communications infrastructure, to build a prototype civic network to be used for public evaluation, to build public information resources on civic networking in Russia, and to widely advertise and solicit participation on an initial community networking project. During this period, we will also work to transfer knowledge, organizational experience and technology from the American team, which has been heavily involved - both organizationally and technically in civic networking in the U.S.

In this planning project, we propose 5 months of rather intensive effort to lay basic infrastructure for a strong civic networking initiative in Russia and to identify 3-4 communities in Russia in which local interest and infrastructure provide fertile ground for development of solid civic network models.

At the end of the 5 month planning project, we will be ready to begin work on implementation - with hopeful continued partnership with the Ford Foundation and other interested funding organizations - of these initial community network sites and to help build momentum for civic networking in communities throughout Russia.

The following describes the rest of this project description.

We began the grant project in April, 1997 and must complete work in 5 months. The end result will be the identification of 3-4 communities in partnership with whom initial community networks will be established and with whom a proposal for this implementation stage will be submitted to the Ford Foundation (in cooperation with other interested funding agencies).

We would like to take this opportunity to express our deep gratitude to the Ford Foundation for active support and encouragement.

Change is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast. In the pool where you least expect it, will be a fish. - Ovid

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1996 Friends and Partners
Natasha Bulashova, Greg Cole
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Updated: 1997-08-

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